Rice Inc, the 2018 TFF Challenge’s Borlaug ‘Take it to the Farmer’ Winner, is a social enterprise that tackles food insecurity by empowering smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia. In an interview, the Co-founder Lincoln Lee shared with us how they are navigating their business through the pandemic and finding ways to serve those whose livelihood and health are most affected.
♻️ COVID-19 has stopped you from selling rice to businesses that were closed due to the lockdown. How did you cope with this challenge?
We had no option but to hold it in our warehouses until development and sales could reach pre-COVID rates. We realized that there was an opportunity to help the local communities in London where me and my Co-founder are based. COVID-19 has caused a sharp increase in demand for food parcels and food banks. We established a new campaign called Rice Up for London, where every bag of rice that is purchased, is matched and donated to a food bank/charity. With this pivot, we can address food insecurity in the city.
⚖️ How do you balance social impact and profit-making?
For any social enterprise, there should be a balance between commitments to social impact and financial sustainability. We’re fortunate to be in a position where we can support vulnerable people and still generate sufficient revenue through our “buy a bowl and impact a bowl”-model within this campaign. This position allows us to stick to our pledge of donating 500,000 meals.
📈 How might others follow in your footsteps and think beyond profitability?
Ask this; “What is the mission and purpose of the company, and how does profitability factor into that mission and purpose?” Ultimately, the goal of a social enterprise is to deliver a positive impact to stakeholders and the planet—consistently. Profitability is essential in enabling this, it cannot be considered in isolation but rather as an essential part of a larger picture encompassing the mission and purpose. Ultimately this leads to better outcomes for the company, the beneficiaries, and everyone involved.
🌪 You are serving vulnerable communities in London. How did the pandemic affect them?
Many people suddenly found themselves furloughed or without jobs, without stable sources of income, and found it impossible to feed themselves and their families. With as many as 3 million people food insecure and 1.5 million people a day going with food, the food banks have also seen increased pressure with a 100-300% increase in demand. This has put immense pressure on their networks, some are even running out of food or funds.
👐 How has your new business model been received?
The response we’ve had from people so far has been very positive and encouraging! They think it’s great that we’re bringing our impact so close to home and that we’re doubling our impact by not only empowering the rice farmers in Southeast Asia but also feeding the hungry of London.
🔗 Rice Inc partners with other companies to match donations. How does that work?
We quickly realized that while we could provide a strong staple to support food banks and food charities in the UK, there were other partnership opportunities. For example, a food parcel would contain staples like rice and other food substances such as potatoes, beans, etc. Some even give out kits that include blankets, soaps, etc. We realized we could partner up with other industries to offer a better service, by providing a variety of food items and essentials.
🚀 Who can get involved in your campaign, and how?
We’re looking for organizations and individuals who would like to get involved, and there are several ways to do so!
- If you know any food banks or charities who would like some rice, let us know.
- If you know any organizations/individuals who would love to support our campaign (and it’s a bonus if they already use rice) do get in touch.
- If you have potential organizations that could partner with us to match our donations, we’d love to discuss this further.
📢 You turned the global crisis into an opportunity for Rice Inc. What’s your advice for other entrepreneurs who want to do the same?
The first step is to get rid of this ‘business as usual’ mindset. COVID has undoubtedly and irreversibly changed the landscape of how business can be conducted. Unexplored markets are emerging and developing, but new modes of doing business, new services, and new challenges are also becoming apparent. These present unique opportunities for new entrants and start-ups to thrive while creating space within markets and industries that were previously dominated. In the post-COVID world, companies will need to be agile, adapt, and spot trends.